Jo Talks Books: On The Second Year of My Bechdel Test Experiment

Hi everyone! It’s almost the end of 2019 and the start of a new decade, WHAT? I can’t believe that this year has gone so fast, but then I never can. For my final discussion post of the year, I’m bringing back a topic from last year and talking about the results of my second year of doing the Bechdel Test with my books. For anyone who is not aware of what the Bechdel Test is, it’s a test for female representation in media, usually used for films. The three criteria for passing the test are as follows: a) are there two or more female characters, b) who talk to each other & c) about something other than a man. It’s a pretty low bar to pass, but you’d be surprised how few things actually do.

I read 40 books this year, or at least as of the time of writing this post, I’m hoping to read a couple more before the year ends. Of these, I analysed 33 of them, so two less than last year, as two  were a non fiction which couldn’t really be used, four were comics (which I could have analysed, but I didn’t review them) and the other was an audiobook that I just forgot to look for Bechdel Test passing content in!

Of the 34 books that I analysed, 22 of them passed the Bechdel Test, whilst 11 did not. This is pretty consistent with the results from last year, with the same amount not passing and only two less passing the test. Of course, last year, all the books I read were involved in the stats, whereas this year there are seven that weren’t, so had I involved all the books, the results may have been slightly different.

Once again, almost all the books that passed were written by female authors, but this year, all the books that failed were also written by female authors. This more reflects the gender bias of my reading though, as I only actually read one book by a male author this year, and it actually did pass the test! I also can’t really say this year that books written by female authors with female lead characters were more likely to pass the test, because although all the boks that passed had female lead characters, all the books but one that failed had at least one female narrator as well.

The issue of male narrated books not being as easily able to pass the Bechdel Test was also evident this year, but only in three books, The Gentleman’s Guide To Vice and Virtue, You and Strange The Dreamer. These books are slightly different to the ones that failed last year though, as You fails by design, it’s about a stalker, so it would be incredibly ironic if it passed the test. The Gentleman’s Guide fails on the simple fact that it only really has one named female character Felicity, though even if it had had more, it probably still would have failed as being narrated in Monty’s first person POV means that he is involved in pretty much every conversation. Strange The Dreamer fails pretty much entirely because it is narrated by Lazlo. There are several female characters but we barely get to see them interact without him.

This year, most of the books that failed the test probably should have passed, because a large majority of them either failed because they didn’t have enough female characters (easily rectified) or simply that their female characters didn’t speak to each other about anything other than men. Take Finale, the final Caraval book: it would have been so easy for it to pass the Bechdel test, it has two female narrators, all they had to do was talk about something other than a man. However because the book revolves so much around their romances, it doesn’t! All that’s really required is a brief exchange about anything other than Legend or Julian. It would have been so easy and yet the book is so focused on the men that it just doesn’t happen. The Diviners also could have quite easily passed, there are multiple named female characters in that book, and the second book does pass the test, but all they seem to talk about is the men in their life, so it fails. To Kill A Kingdom was quite frustrating in this regard as well, because it had a conversation that would have counted, but because Lira’s mother is not named, it doesn’t.

Stalking Jack The Ripper, The Last Namsara and Uprooted, all have main female characters, but they all fall into the trap of having the “one important woman” who only really interact with men, and when they do interact with other women, their conversations all revolve around men.

The same is true for Alex and Eliza, whilst there are other women surrounding Eliza, she only talks to them about Hamilton. The same is true of Romanov, Anastasia has multiple sisters, but they only really speak to each other about their father, brother and romantic interests. This could have something to do with the historical setting, but I don’t believe that, as other historical fiction I read this year, Enchantee and Hamilton and Peggy both passed the test, and presumably historical women did speak about things other than men!

Whilst the books that didn’t pass this year were mainly of the same vein, not enough female characters or where there were, they just didn’t interact, there was more of a variation between the books that did. Like last year, we had the obvious passers and the just barely, though unfortunately, I would say there were more of the latter category this year.

The ones that quite obviously passed, had lots of female characters who interacted frequently through the book. Books where relationships between female characters were integral to the plot. These were books like King Of Fools, where Enne and her new criminal enterprise with her girl gang was a significant subplot, or The Priory of The Orange Tree, where the women are the leaders in their own stories and the interpersonal relationships between them are integral to the plot. Bedlam also has multiple women at the centre of the story and Valkyrie relies on their support and advice, so there are multiple interactions between her and other women. A Girl Called Shameless also had a lot of interactions between women, unsurprisingly as feminism is the focus! Catwoman: Soulstealer also has quite a lot of interactions between women that aren’t about men, as Selina, Harley and Ivy are the focus, Luke is definitely secondary to the women.

Vengeful was kind of an in between one for me, because it does focus on women and power, so the women are very much at the forefront, and I wouldn’t say the Bechdel passing content was quite as throwaway as some of the other books, but there’s not as much content that passes as Priory, King Of Fools or Bedlam.

Many of the other books I read this year had quite narrowly passing content which was a shame. Ninth House just passes based on a conversation between Alex and her professor, but were it not for that, it would probably fail, as there isn’t all that much dialogue and Alex and Dawes’ conversations usually revolve around Darlington. We Are Blood and Thunder, it took almost the entire book to find a conversation between Lena and Constance that didn’t revolve around a man. Kingdom of Ash should definitely have had more conversations between women that weren’t about men, given the size of the book and the number of female characters that there are in the book. I don’t know if I just didn’t look out for multiple interactions as much this year as last year or if there was just less to be had, but it definitely felt like a lot of the books only narrowly passed.

I found it more difficult to judge in audiobooks, mostly because I generally have to go back to look for Bechdel Test passing content, and it’s a lot easier to do that in physical books than it is in audio, so I don’t know if that affected my results at all this year.

I talked last year about the limitations of this test, so I won’t go into it again, as the results this year have once again reflected it, though it was quite interesting that this year, a large number of the books that failed were female led and didn’t pass because of lack of female interaction. I think that’s something that definitely needs to be addressed in fiction, especially YA: a lot of authors will write a female led book, but she is the only one, the “special” one and is surrounded by men. It’s all very well having a female led book, but your female lead should have meaningful interactions with the other women in her life, and talk about things other than men, because whilst teenage girls do talk about them, it’s not the only thing in their lives!

It’s interesting how my results this year can come out with similar numbers to last year, and yet be quite different in terms of both the quantity and quality of female interactions in the books that passed. The Bechdel Test isn’t the most nuanced test in the world, never has been, but you can get quite a signficant difference in the amount of content that passes, as well as the reasons for failure.

So that’s my 2019 Bechdel Test results! I’ve really enjoyed doing it over the past few years and it’s definitely made me more aware of both the quality and quantity of interactions between women in my books, so it’s definitely something I want to continue on with in the coming years.

I’ll have another discussion post for you quite soon, my annual beginning of year 2020 Reading/Writing/Blogging goals. In the meantime, I will have my last Top Ten Tuesday of 2019, as well as my End of Year Check In, on New Year’s Eve.

2 thoughts on “Jo Talks Books: On The Second Year of My Bechdel Test Experiment

  1. Time for tales and tea 29/12/2019 / 6:47 pm

    This is so interesting! I actually didn’t expect that books written by female writers with female narrators would fail this test. Even though the Bechdel Test isn’t perfect, it definitively says something about a book. I’d like to try this experiment next year on the books I read!

    • iloveheartlandx 01/01/2020 / 5:25 pm

      Yeah it’s amazing how many actually don’t pass, it seems like a lot of books trend towards only having one female character, or when they do have more than one, they just don’t interact. Oh it’s definitely helpful, it’s just good to be aware of the limitations. You definitely should, it’s really eye opening!

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